Spotlight Series: Ethics of Pokémon Training

Hey everyone! Jim the Editor once more (I know, twice in one week is a bit excessive but hey there’s a lot going on…). This time I’m here with the second entry into our Spotlight Series, where Chris and I go back into the archives in order to rediscover articles from the rather immense back catalogue here on Pokemaniacal.com. In doing so we hope not only to introduce some of the more recent additions to our little community here to the work we – mostly Chris – have done in the past 8 years but also to add a little commentary to those posts which are by now nearly three generations out of date.

Last time we went right back to the origins of the blog and revisited Chris’ Unova Reviews. This time we are taking a more thematic approach by delving into the collection of posts and articles devoted to the somewhat problematic topic of the Ethics of Pokémon training.

Enjoy!

JtE: Hey, Chris, guess what?

Chris: What?

It’s that time again

Oh good, let me prepare the human sacrifice for our ascension

NO! No! We won’t be ready for that until November at the earliest.

Oh.  Well that’s disappointing. What time do you mean?

Time to revisit the Pokémaniacal archives!
After all, last month’s effort wasn’t a
total dumpster fire….

Oh, that.
I suppose it was… acceptable.
What were we going to talk about this time?

Well, we were hoping for some requests…

I mean… I’ve been thinking about it and that might defeat the purpose a little.  We’re doing this to turn people onto stuff they might not have read.  Specifically looking to talk about whatever’s already popular seems like it could be missing the point.

Hm, maybe you’re right. Screw the people!

If they knew what was good for them, we wouldn’t have to tell them.

It’s lucky they have us then!
So, what should we tell them about?

Well… I have kinda wanted to revisit the big old “Ethics of Pokémon Training” article for a while, as well as really everything else I wrote about that in response to assorted questions.

Are we making up a new category just for this then? Can we do that?

We can do whatever we want; screw the people, remember?

Let’s revisit The Ethics of Pokémon Training then!
I guess we should probably start wayyy back in 2012?

What was the world even like back then?

The world was ending and ‘Call me Maybe’ was a hit song… The two may or may not have been related.

Oh, the world is always ending; sometimes it’s just ending faster. 
But that particular Monday, it was ending slightly faster than usual because PETA had made a parody video game of Pokémon Black and White.

Black and Blue?

That’s the one.
The player takes on the role of Pikachu, fighting to free himself and Ash’s other Pokémon from slavery by rebelling against the humans.
You can theoretically still play it, but it’s a Flash game and… well, what kind of moist cave person still has Adobe Flash installed in 2019?

Black and Blue title screen.

I suppose the plot of Black and White kind of set the Pokémon franchise up for more of that kind of criticism?

Mmmm… I’m not sure I agree with that, actually.  I think the potential for it has always been there.  I suspect most people outside the fan community don’t actually know the plot of Black and White, but to someone that does it almost seems to me like a mitigating factor.  It shows that Pokémon understands it has this problem and is at least open to thinking about it.

So they are attempting to meet the problem head-on in a way?

I mean… as head-on as they can while still being their kid-friendly selves.  In some ways Black and White are kind of a cop out because of the way Ghetsis is manipulating everything, which I think is what Black and Blue responds to.

And that’s what you suggest in this first opinion piece?

Well, in the first part of it, yeah

And in the second half, we see a classic Chris synthesis of evidence to arrive at a theory of the ethics of Pokémon training!

I mean, I give it a go

People should definitely check out the article but can you summarise just for the sake of the conversation?

Well, basically my point was to look at the ways Pokémon benefit from their relationships with humans, the evidence that (at least the way the anime tells it) they tend to enter into those relationships freely, and the fact that abuse of Pokémon definitely exists and is called out as such within the world.
There are clearly rules to this stuff; there are ways of treating Pokémon that are okay and ways that are not okay, and to my mind there is evidence that the Pokémon themselves have some say in how that’s defined

And that was the definitive word on the matter and it never came up again?

I mean, obviously…
No, of course I got asked about similar things from time to time.  At one point in 2016 I had occasion to collect links to the several things I’d written, and this is sort of my reference now for when I need to find them.

And this touches less on the ‘cock/dog fighting’ aspect of the games and more on the relationship between trainer and Pokémon?

Well, trainer with Pokémon, and each of them with society.
There is this question “is Pokémon training slavery?” that comes up from time to time, and it’s a problem.  Obviously that depends on your definition of slavery but I think from a strictly legal perspective trainers probably do “own” their Pokémon, and some Pokémon are certainly of human-level intelligence.
And on the one hand, I don’t think this is useful, because slavery is still a thing and making these comparisons to kids in a fantasy world with their magical pets kind of trivialises it…

but on the other..?

but on the other, trying to defend Pokémon can put you in the position of a slave-owner defending the institution of slavery, and frankly some of the same arguments come out. I think there is a real temptation, when talking about this stuff, to make what some people today call a “Thermian argument.”

and what’s that?

So, the Thermians are this race of aliens from the 1999 movie Galaxy Quest, which is about a bunch of washed-up actors who all used to be in a Star Trek-esque 1980s space opera together.

1999’s Galaxy Quest.

Ah, the one with Tim Allen?

That’s the one. And a quirk of the Thermians’ culture is that they have no concept of fiction, so they’ve seen the show and believed that these people are actually badass space commandos, and they beam them up and beg them to command a spaceship for them and that’s basically the premise of the movie.

and this relates to Pokémon…?

So, a Thermian argument is when, in response to someone pointing out that a work of fiction has some ethically problematic element or other, you mount a defence that is entirely in-universe.
So you reference the social norms of the world or the history of the world, or the particular weird magic of the world, rather than referencing the story’s themes or structure or character arcs or overall message (as if you believed, like the Thermians, that you were talking about real events rather than a work of fiction).

So, that’s bad?

In a word, yeah.  ’cause all that in-universe stuff is mutable. It might well be a rule of the world that, say, a particular fantasy race is somehow biologically and psychologically suited to slavery, and within that world’s internal framework that might well justify keeping them as slaves… but out here in the real world, there’s still an author who created that setting and wrote those rules, and decided whether or not their story would include any possibility of challenge to those rules, and it’s valid to ask whether they had some point in mind by doing that. Or, even if they didn’t consciously have some point in mind, whether one could be construed from the text.

So basically, something can be fine ‘in-universe’ but that doesn’t stop it from negatively influencing thoughts and ideas in our world?

Exactly

So, does the Pokémon franchise and Pokémon training as a practice survive such scrutiny?

Well, that’s the thing; I don’t think I’ve properly given it the full blast yet. I don’t really think I’m guilty of making Thermian arguments in these old pieces, because I do always gesture to the real world, and I’ve always tried to make the point that Pokémon is actually most interesting when it’s conscious of its own… issues.
But I’m a Pokémon lore guy, so when people come to me with questions about this stuff I do always focus quite heavily on how Pokémon training works in practice within the story and what I think the internal rules are.

So, do you think you’ll ever get around to a proper follow up which tackles this?

I want to!  I don’t know when, because I’ve got generation VIII coming up, and I’m writing for PokéJungle now, and I also want to find time for a really speculative and lore-heavy series on legendary Pokémon, but I think a series on… not just this but, like, the “philosophy of Pokémon” generally would be a really interesting thing to write, and a useful contribution… Insofar as anything I do is useful

I’d agree! I do think that is when you’re at your best – wielding vast amounts of lore.
In the meantime, do you think there’s anything in the last two generations of games which changes your position on the relationship between Pokémon and trainer?

Well, mega evolution and Z-moves both kinda stress the idea, which has always been there implicitly, that the trainer has to somehow give of themselves, in some spiritual sense, for Pokémon to be at their best. And Alola, because of the way the trial system works, seems to me like it gives Pokémon a bit more independence and more of a voice, which I think is great.
Alola really dials up the idea that Pokémon training is actually about harmony with nature, which again is something that has always been a core theme for Pokémon, and I think that’s the context that the creators always intended for this stuff to be seen in – it’s not supposed to be about humans’ relationship with a subordinate social class; it’s supposed to be about humans’ relationship with nature.
Any good story is susceptible to multiple interpretations, but that’s something I think Alola does better than any other region previously, and I am actually really hopeful that Galar will do something interesting as well.  There have been a lot of signs, and some comments by the developers, that the British industrial revolution was a big thematic inspiration for these games, and… well, as a comment on humanity’s relationship with nature, in contrast to Alola, that sounds like it could be really interesting!

That’d be great – also a wonderful excuse for you to dive back into these… controversial waters…
Should we talk about the depiction of training and battling in Detective Pikachu?

I guess we ought to, at least a little. Detective Pikachu is… sort of its own thing, because it goes out of its way to establish that Ryme City is unique within the Pokémon World. It proposes this vision of humans and Pokémon living together notionally as equals, no Pokéballs and in principle no battles, and in the game this society seems kind of utopian.
But the movie presents us with a “seedy underbelly” to it, where it seems like Pokémon battles can’t be stamped out, like maybe that whole idea is futile, and of course it turns out in the end that [spoiler alert or whatever], the visionary behind the whole concept of Ryme City is a bad guy whose whole philosophy of harmony between humans and Pokémon is… well, not good.

Charizard cage match from 2019’s Detective Pikachu.

And Ryme City says Pokémon battles are bad, but Harry and his Pikachu, who are law enforcers in Ryme City, are apparently quite good at battling.
So… Ryme City, in-universe, has a stance on this set of problems, but then the movie itself also has a stance on it, and I don’t think it’s the same stance, but the movie is also… reticent to talk about it, because it doesn’t want to court controversy. So… it’s not very clear.

So, more to come on this too?

I mean, maybe? It’s not high on my to-do list though. Maybe if and when we see another live-action Pokémon movie in the same continuity.

Is there anything you’d like to add before we go?

People can get understandably tetchy when you criticise something they love. I think as fans – of Pokémon or of anything else – we need to work hard to distinguish good faith criticism from bad faith. Sure, there’s dumb unreflective hot takes about this stuff by people who don’t understand Pokémon, but there can also be thoughtful critique by people who love Pokémon and want it to be better. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that, I think.
We should be afraid of bad arguments from our own side – especially if they’re mine!

Basically, ‘Be better’?

In a word!

or even two!

and that’s about all we have time and room for this month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this dive back into the Ethics of Pokémon. It’s a tough topic; one which should force us to investigate some of the fundamental aspects of what is to all of us here a beloved franchise from our childhood. Furthermore, and it should go without saying, but the comment section of this post might not be the best place to do that… Remember, if you do want to hear Chris’ opinion (or mine) on any aspects of the Pokémon world, you can submit questions by using the question tab located at the top of the page; we love hearing from you and interacting with our growing little community here at Pokémaniacal. Also, despite our jokes above, if there is anything you’d like us to revisit through this Spotlight Series, do let us know in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Spotlight Series: Ethics of Pokémon Training

  1. “It might well be a rule of the world that, say, a particular fantasy race is somehow biologically and psychologically suited to slavery, and within that world’s internal framework that might well justify keeping them as slaves…”

    I can’t be the only one who immidiately thought of house elves from the Harry Potter universe. They apparently love and need to be enslaved and the only house elf who wanted to and likes being free is looked down on by other elves. Too bad pretty much all the interesting things about this were cut out of movies (especially Hermione’s stance)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Believe it or not, this isn’t actually what I had in mind at the time, but yeah, in retrospect it’s hard not to see it. Although given the history of the household service industry in 19th century England, the kind of jobs we see house elves doing, and the rigidity of social class in English society generally, I think there might *also* be a classism angle to this that the (largely American) international Anglophone audience misses.

      Like

  2. “We should be afraid of bad arguments from our own side”
    This times a million. A bad argument for your own cause will drive people away just as much as a good one from your opponent, if not moreso. I’ve had to say things like “yes, stabbing them with Occam’s Razor is the best argument here, but you’re still wrong about what said Razor actually is” for example.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who feels that the influence of media/arts on society/morality has been a tad exaggerated (not really in this specific post, though) & strongly rejects the notion that media/arts have any obligation to deliver properly moral messages (or any message at all) – /and/ as someone who personally has a hard time watching (overly realistic) violent movies or playing (overly realistic) violent video games*, I personally don’t think we have to worry about how Pokémon affects the mentality of players, wider cultural norms, etc. I guess I’m one of those who looks at it from a Thermian standpoint – sure, you’re sending out your most expendable Pokémon (let’s say, Clefable) to be crushed under a tiny continent just so that the opponent’s Z-move won’t ruin your late-game sweeper, but Clefable doesn’t really mind, and will be fine once you apply some topical sprays! I think Pokémon is basically too unrealistic and cartoonish to negatively affect our own ethical foundations, considering that even stuff like GTA and… uh, CoD (that is a thing, right?) doesn’t seem to do so.

    That said, discussions about ethics in fiction are interesting anyway. Especially in reverse – what does the implied morality of this video game, created by humans living in a society, say about said society? When it comes to Pokémon, one could surmise that it reveals a society that is, at least, not uncomfortable about viewing animals as tools – but also, on the other hand, a society that’s quite enthusiastic about viewing animals as friends.

    I hope I’m not misinterpreting or misrepresenting anyone else’s opinions in this comment! I might be missing the point, after all.

    *Really, thinking too hard about what a game of chess actually represents can make me upset…

    Like

    1. I disagree, not because I think art has an *obligation* to deliver a message, but because I don’t think it *has a choice*. I don’t think you can make art that’s neutral – or if you can, then it would be, frankly, bad and uninteresting. I say about this the same thing that I like to say about moral philosophy: we can’t opt out of it; we can only choose to be ignorant of it, and that choice may leave us unable to recognise flawed decisions we’re making and flawed beliefs we hold. I recognise that’s… not an uncontroversial stance, and I’m not an expert on aesthetic philosophy, but it is also pretty foundational to a lot of my worldview, and the way I interact with the media in my life.

      It’s hard to talk about this with video games, because there is this background hum of “video games cause violence” nonsense that is just… clearly absurd, but has had a lot of currency at a few points in my own lifetime. And because of “video games cause violence” coming up from time to time, a lot of gamers are automatically suspicious of *any* attempt to talk about meaning or messages in games, to the point of dogmatically claiming that culture has no influence on anyone’s beliefs or worldview, which is equally ludicrous because, like… that’s what culture *is*.

      And this is why the “Pokémon training is animal abuse” angle doesn’t bother me much. It’s a shallow, dumb take that doesn’t actually understand what Pokémon is about or take time to engage with the stories it tells, and is of a piece with “violent video games literally make you more likely to go out into the streets and start killing people.” But over the last 20 years this one extremely dumb take has consumed so much oxygen that it’s… kind of the only critique of Pokémon that anyone knows about. That’s insane! There is so much more to say – and sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who sees the need for it – about the *actual beliefs* that these stories express about the relationship between humanity and nature. And that *does* matter, because it’s *easy* to say “yes, obviously we shouldn’t actually make animals fight each other for fun,” that’s an *obvious* one, but it’s *hard* to say whether Pokémon’s vision for the role of humanity in protecting and shepherding the natural world is right or wrong. We shouldn’t be worried that art might trick us into getting the easy questions wrong, like “should I go and shoot a bunch of people on the street?” We absolutely *should* think very carefully about what our art has to say about the hard questions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “We shouldn’t be worried that art might trick us into getting the easy questions wrong, like ‘should I go and shoot a bunch of people on the street?'”

        That’s a good point. When I say that I feel art’s influence on society has been a tad exaggerated, I have opinion pieces that assume that kind of thing in mind. (Although, even though I was just writing about violent video games, I had kind of forgotten that whole debacle about video games making people violent – that used to be a huge issue back in the days!)

        Art and media can certainly influence people in more subtle ways, on less obvious questions, as you say, and especially perpetuate already established values and views (although we probably disagree on to what degree art and media does this). While I (naturally) fail to think of any specific example right now, I’ve seen a few opinion pieces where it really seems that the underlying assumption is that, if a piece of media conveys any immoral messages, that piece of media must be stopped, the creator shamed, and people barred from enjoying it. (I’m being a bit hyperbolic though.) This, of course, does not invalidate criticism in its entirety, because most people do seem to criticize from the more reasonable assumption that “it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media, while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”

        Though indigenists and eco-feminists would probably disagree with me here, I think Pokémon’s outlook on the relationship between humanity and nature would constitute a positive influence on society, because that relationship is already decidedly vertical (for the majority of humanity) and has been so for ~6000 to 500 years (depending on the area), and that will probably not change. Thus, any media that would influence the consumer towards a “shepherding” mentality (rather than, say, a purely extractive mentality), and appreciate biodiversity (especially bugs!) and “the wilderness” is good in my book. Although I’m not sure if such messages at all compensate for the ecological harm (like mineral extraction) done to deliver those messages to us via game consoles (or the computer I’m writing this on).

        (I have this vague feeling that this was a far too wordy way to state “well, mostly agreed”.)

        Liked by 1 person

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